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UN releases final national climate pledges, says world on 'catastrophic path'

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UN releases final national climate pledges, says world on 'catastrophic path'

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A person looks for belongings after Hurricane Ida destroyed their home in Grand Isle, La., on Sept. 3, 2021.
Source: Sean Rayford/Getty Images News via Getty Images

Even though nations are ramping up their commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the world is barreling toward a climate that is 2.7 degrees C warmer than pre-industrial levels by 2100. That temperature rise far exceeds the threshold scientists say nations must maintain to avoid catastrophic climate change.

The United Nations Sept. 17 released the latest round of carbon reduction pledges from parties to the Paris Agreement on climate change. They were announced ahead of the critical 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, held in Glasgow, Scotland, in early November.

All 191 signatories to the landmark 2015 climate treaty have now reported their plans for reining in emissions over the next five years. Known as "nationally determined contributions," or NDCs, these voluntary commitments are at the core of the landmark 2015 climate treaty.

The problem is that even with the pledges, the world is on a "catastrophic pathway" toward 2.7 degrees of heating, according to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. He therefore urged wealthy nations, which account for 80% of global emissions, to ensure that the Paris Agreement does not fail.

Under the Paris accord, nations promised to do their part to limit the global temperature rise to "well below" 2 degrees and preferably to 1.5 degrees to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The agreement also requires the parties to peak their greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.

But the U.N. said total emissions will be 16.3% above 2010 levels when reductions promised in the NDCs are taken into account. Emissions must decline by 45% to limit warming to 1.5 degrees and by about 25% to limit warming to 2 degrees.

The report came the same day President Joe Biden was holding his second virtual Leaders Summit on Climate to try to get nations to ramp up their climate commitments ahead of COP26. The conference has been described as the world's last chance to avoid runaway climate change.

In opening the summit, Biden announced that his administration is working with the European Union and other nations to launch a "global methane pledge" to cut releases of the powerful greenhouse gas by at least 30% below 2020 levels by 2030. The gas is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term and is rapidly building up in the atmosphere, but scientists believe that progress can be made by immediately tackling methane.

World Meteorological Organization: World will have warmed 1.5 degrees within 5 years

A separate report from the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization released Sept. 16 concluded that the world is already approaching 1.5 degree warming. The researchers foresee a 40% chance that the average temperature will reach the critical threshold over the next five years.

The so-called emissions gap — the difference between national pledges to cut carbon pollution and where countries actually need to be — stands at 15 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent for the 2-degree goal and 32 gigatons for the 1.5-degree goal, the report said.

The analysis echoed a similarly dire report from the U.S. Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change in August that said changes to the world's climate are unprecedented and intensifying.

"We really are out of time," Guterres said in a Sept. 16 recorded video in which he noted that rich nations also feel the impacts of climate change. "

In the past month, Biden's special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, traveled to Japan, India and China to try to pressure the world's largest emitters to commit to deep carbon reductions ahead of COP26. But he failed to secure any new commitments from China, the world's No. 1 emitter. India also declined to offer new climate promises, but Kerry tweeted that it was a "productive trip," and he is hoping that more progress will be made in the coming weeks.

As the U.S. urges other nations to increase their climate ambitions, foreign leaders are watching politics in Washington to gauge whether the U.S. will be able to meet its own Paris pledges.

In April, the Biden administration promised to submit a new NDC ahead of the Glasgow conference to cut 50% to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030. Biden also called for 80% clean electricity by 2030 and said the country would reach net-zero emissions at least by 2050.

It remains uncertain whether Democrats will be able to push through all climate measures that were included in the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better reconciliation package that Congress is advancing and to seek to deliver on U.S. commitments. Biden faces pushback from Republicans over his ambitious climate agenda, with some arguing that the onus should be on China and its large fleet of coal plants to cut emissions.